It’s amazing what a little imagination can spark.

In July 1980, Clive Cussler first came to Charleston looking for a little submarine lost in the darkest days of the Civil War — the H.L. Hunley.

At the time, the adventure novelist was just getting started in the shipwreck-hunting business, and he wasn’t quite the household name he is now. Some people still remember him walking the streets of the city in a “Clive Who?” T-shirt — a joke then, and even funnier now.

It took him 15 years and four trips, but he found the Hunley.

And this week, 33 years later, he came back to town and found something else — entire industries have grown out of that expedition that, at the time, he considered something of a lark.

“I’m just glad that we saw so much benefit from it,” Cussler says.

A big catch

It’s been a big week for Cussler.

On Monday he celebrated his 82nd birthday. On Tuesday he marked the 40th anniversary of The Mediterranean Caper, his first novel featuring oceanographer and adventurer Dirk Pitt — part James Bond, part nautical Indiana Jones.

He’s sold more than 100 million books since then, all of them best-sellers. That has allowed him to search the world’s oceans, finding 100 lost shipwrecks with his National Underwater and Marine Agency team.

On Wednesday he climbed into the tank at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center and took another look at perhaps the biggest fish he ever landed.

There was a little pride in his eyes, the spark of imagination still there. But like most anglers, all he can talk about are the ones that got away.

“The last time I was here, Ralph (Wilbanks) and I decided to go find the Weehawken’s torpedo raft,” Cussler recalled. “We saw it once north of Morris Island.”

The huge, spiked wooden raft attached the boat’s bow was meant to work as an anti-mine device for the Union ironclad. It was too cumbersome, and the Navy eventually cut it loose. NUMA found it, but by the time they went back to do something about it, Hurricane Hugo — not Confederate mines — had obliterated it.

The raft would have been an interesting find, but it could hardly have advanced metallurgy science, as the Hunley’s discovery has, or led Clemson to build a wind-turbine facility in North Charleston.

And it certainly wouldn’t have generated worldwide attention, or the tourism bonanza, that the Hunley has.

So instead of a simple Civil War artifact, Charleston got jobs, industrial growth and a reputation as a scientific hotspot.

Way to keep the eye on the ball, Cussler.

A quiet trip

Cussler and his wife, Janet, spent this week with Warren Lasch and his wife, Donna. One man found the Hunley, the other raised it. They’ve been close friends ever since.

It’s been a quiet trip — lunch in Park Circle, evening cigars on Kiawah, a lot of reminiscing and in-jokes between old friends.

The Cusslers, who live in the Arizona desert, where the temperature routinely reaches triple digits, noted that it may feel even hotter here.

We could have done without that discovery.

Today, Cussler leaves Charleston once again. Most people didn’t know he was here, and probably don’t realize the benefit an expedition to find a lost Civil War boat has brought to this town.

He says he’ll be back, and maybe even to look for more shipwrecks. Charleston would certainly appreciate that.

And you can bet very few people around here are asking “Clive who?” anymore.

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